Friday, February 29, 2008

The History of Jihadis in Iraq

It is common for opponents of the Iraq War to charge that Saddam did not allow al Qaeda into Iraq, and if we are fighting them in Iraq (many on the anti-war side bizarrely deny that al Qaeda is even fighting us in Iraq) it is our own fault. Saying that al Qaeda's presence in Iraq is our fault would certainly carry weight if the post-Saddam elected Iraqi government was hosting al Qaeda, but that is not the case at all.

Our liberation of Iraq did not cause the jihadi problem in Iraq. Al Qaeda invaded Iraq after we destroyed Saddam's regime. Arguing that we caused the jihadis in Iraq is like arguing that our invasion of Italy in 1943 caused the Nazis to occupy Italy.

Further, before April 2003, the jihadis had an ally in Baghdad because America was their common enemy. Why would al Qaeda have invaded an ally? And before 2001, why would al Qaeda leave their Afghanistan sanctuary? And remember that Saddam Hussein hosted his own jihadi corps. Jihadis have thrived in Iraq since the mid-1990s. The nature of the jihadis has changed over time, but their presence is nothing new.

In the mid-1990s, Saddam Hussein reacted to his loss in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and the Shia uprising that followed by importing thousands of jihadis to form a Moslem Foreign Legion called Saddam's Fedayeen. Saddam intended to use them as stay-behind forces along with Baath Party militias and secret police to control the southern region and prevent another Shia uprising should America drive his armed forces from southern Iraq a second time.

More importantly, this decision established the pipeline to Syria and out to the radical mosques in the Moslem world that would continue to funnel jihadis to Iraq long after Saddam was overthrown, tried, and executed.

But the Fedayeen were not the only jihadis in Iraq. Saddam hosted many terrorists and the jihadis were no exception. The main outside group was Ansar al-Islam, the al Qaeda force we hammered with cruise missiles and a joint Kurdish-American special forces ground force during the invasion in 2003. This group existed in Iraq prior to our invasion, having formed in Iraq ten days before the September 11, 2001 attacks on our soil from other groups already in Iraq.

Yes, they existed at the edge of the Kurdish region and not under directly ruled Iraqi territory, but this meant they remained safely away from the main Kurdish forces and close to the Iranian border where they could run in case of trouble. And this allowed Saddam some ability to deny knowledge of them. But they supplied themselves with trips to Baghdad. So don't try to pretend that they had nothing to do with Saddam because their main camp was in the Kurdish region and not in Baghdad.

Once we initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom, we killed huge numbers of the Fedayeen when these fanatics threw themselves at our advancing units in human wave attacks. Even as Saddam's regime fell, they continued to flow into Iraq.

The jihadi presence in Iraq was also increased by the decision of al Qaeda after the fall of their Taliban hosts in 2001 and our invasion of Iraq in 2003 to focus on Iraq as their main front against America. In effect, al Qaeda invaded Iraq. Which distracted bin Laden from Afghanistan, funny enough.

In the late summer of 2003, jihadis were again flocking into Iraq, pushed there by al Qaeda and helped along by the old Saddam jihadi pipeline through Damascus. By spring 2004 they would be strong enough to join the Baathists and Sadrists for an uprising they hoped would drive us from Iraq. This offensive was certainly scary, but in the end just drove the Shias to side with us more vigorously, with the Fallujah sanctuary providing ample evidence of the sick nature of the jihadis. Eventually, we destroyed that sanctuary and scattered the jihadis.

As we also defeated the Baathists and held back the Sadrists through 2005, Syria and Iran got involved even more. In an effort to start a civil war between Shias and Sunni Arabs, al Qaeda blew up the Samarra Golden Mosque dome in February 2006. Iran and Syria funneled jihadis and arms to al Qaeda and Sadr's goons who went on a killing spree against each other's supporters. The imported Sunni jihadis tended to be either leadership or suicide bombers. Al Qaeda in Iraq, until then only a few percent of the actual numbers making up the "insurgency," actually grew at the expense of the nationalist and Baathist groups who lost their more jihadi-prone gunmen to al Qaeda. Al Qaeda thus grew even as their allied Sunni Arab groups declined in numbers. The Baathists had thought they could control the rube jihadis as a tool, but in the end al Qaeda eclipsed the Baathists as the primary Sunni enemy.

Our decision at the beginning of 2007 to surge troops and change strategy in the face of the new situation after Samarra led al Qaeda to their own surge ahead of our troops surge. Suicide bombings by the jihadis and civilian deaths skyrocketed in the early part of 2007. But our offensive broke the back of the al Qaeda terrorist organization and sent them fleeing from Anbar and Baghdad.

We are now trying to help our Iraqi allies handle the situation in Mosul as we continue to go after the Sunni jihadis north of Baghdad and the Shia jihadis in Baghdad.

These Iranian-backed Shia jihadis are the other part of the jihadi presence in Iraq. These groups were growing in strength since we let them up off the mat in August 2004, and by the end of 2006 I worried more about them than the Sunni groups, including al Qaeda. But fear of our surge led Sadr to declare a ceasefire (extended this month for another 6 months) before we began operations.

This ceasefire did not stop us from operating against the Sadrist groups to decimate their leadership and attack the Iranian network that supplied the Sadrist death squads. We essentially broke apart these groups by focusing on the death squads and working with the majority who were really just in Sadr's organization to protect their neighborhoods from al Qaeda bombers. Today, Sadr is much weakened and spends his time in Iran. The Iranian-backed jihadis continue to attack our forces, but at lower levels. Southern Iraq is being left to the Iraqis to police.

It is very twisted thinking to say we "caused" al Qaeda's presence in Iraq by our invasion. Unless you also want to argue that our destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 just led al Qaeda to focus on Iraq.

Saddam had no reason to host al Qaeda in large numbers. Saddam had his own tame jihadis and hardly wanted a free agent with objectives of their own too near him. Saddam banished the al Qaeda types to the fringes of Iraq where they could do him little harm. And al Qaeda had little reason to target Saddam's friendly regime who could be counted on to treat America as an enemy.

I know it is inconvenient for the anti-Iraq War people who insist they really want to focus on al Qaeda, but al Qaeda chose to fight us in Iraq. And with increasingly powerful allied Iraqi forces, we have nearly beaten them in Iraq, wrecked al Qaeda's reputation in the wider Arab world by inflicting losses on them and exposing their eagerness to kill Moslems, and discredited terrorism in pursuit of Islamic goals.

That, my friends, is the history of jihadis in Iraq. Forget your fantasy world where it is George W. Bush's fault.